BABIES HAVE it tough, even in the animal kingdom. Some have to face unspeakable problems even before birth. The eldest baby sand tiger shark, while still in its mamma’s tummy, will ruthlessly consume all the other embryos which would have developed into its siblings. There are, of course, other babies which eat their brothers and sisters, but only when they’re hungry.
If there are too many spiderlings for a spider-mom to feed, the little ones will happily eat each other. In some cases, mama will eat them, too. There goes maternal love out of the window. But there are also spider-moms who will willingly sacrifice their own lives for their babies: encouraging them to eat her. Many spider-moms also dine on the loves of their lives (the spider-dads) so that their babies will be strong and full of daddy’s health-giving protein as well as DNA.
Some nestlings aren’t too far behind. If food is scarce, the chicks of raptors and waders, for example, will mercilessly bayonet their baby siblings to death. Some baby birds are still unhatched when they get thrown out on the ground. Others are pink and revolting when they find they are being picked up like a Scooty by a five-tonne crane and tossed out of their homes. They will never know that their place has been taken by a hulking imposter called a cuckoo or koel — who will work their poor loving parents to the bone, fetching them gargantuan meals every five minutes. If it’s any consolation, the imposter will eventually reveal its true identity — and hopefully have a bit of a meltdown as it tackles this identity crisis (when koel teens start calling like koels and not like crows, it can be upsetting for them, not to mention their foster parents). Even in noble mammalian families like those of lions, if the hunting is poor, the runt of the litter is left to stagger along on its own, till it collapses. Mama cares, but she has other healthier babies to bring up.
Some babies, like ducklings, will fix on the first large moving object they see after being hatched, and so may call a tractor “mama” and follow it everywhere.
In many cases, there is, in fact, zero family life. Turtle moms bury their eggs on a beach on a moonlit night and disappear into the oceans. The little hatchlings have to dig themselves out and run hell-for-leather for the sea with no help at all from anyone — and then find their way in the big bad ocean (if you’ve swum even a little too far away from the beach, you’ll feel the immense loneliness of the open seas and know what I mean!). If you tell a fat, hairy caterpillar that its mom and dad are those gorgeous creatures fluttering around blossoms, it’ll give you a withering look and say, “oh sure!”
Family life can be complicated too. If, for instance, you are a lion cub, you can count on your mom to keep you safe and fed. But if your dad is getting a bit long in the tooth and a muscle-bound hunk with a shaggy hairdo swaggers over — run for your dear life! He’ll drive away (or kill) your dad and then come after you. Your mom will defend you to the best of her ability, but that’s usually not enough. Once you’re out of the way (dead, alas!) she’ll fall for the hulk, because she wants more babies.
With large animals, families — usually mom and cubs — stay together till the cubs are about two years old. Till then, mom will defend them tooth and nail. Then they face their boards — solo hunting exams and finding territories. After graduation, mom just walks away and the family is done with. In many species, like elephants, teenage bulls are pushed out of the family, while daughters stay on with their moms, aunts and grandmoms for all their lives. In some families, like those of cheetahs, adult siblings may band together forming formidable hunting coalitions.
In a few families, dads are really moms. It is papa seahorse who gives birth after mama has deposited her eggs into his tummy pouch — a practice many ladies would no doubt love to emulate. In ostriches, it is the father that incubates the eggs and takes care of the babies — of several ladies, at the same time. But, God help you if you are born a snail. Here, your mama is also a papa and your papa is also a mama — all at the same time: each snail is half-mama, half-papa. The mama half of one marries the papa half of the other, and vice versa. And you are going to be one confused little snail baby.
There is one area in which animal family life is far ahead of ours. Animal parents, of monkeys, for example, do not get murderously inclined when their darling little bandariya falls for the good-for-nothing baboon next door and wants to marry him.